Darkness Before the Dawn
Purim teaches us how to trust God even when engulfed in darkness and doubt.
In the Purim story, when events seem to be reaching their final conclusion with Esther approaching King Achashverosh to beg him to spare her people, a strange thing occurs. Esther invites the king and Haman to a party, and at that party she invites them to another one! Only at the second party does she name Haman as the villain about to destroy her people, thereby triggering the famous "turnabout."
Why doesn't Esther spill the beans at the first party? Let her just get it over with! Why invite them to yet another party and prolong the agony?
Esther was one smart lady. She must have had a strategy in mind.
"Where do you see a hint to Esther from the Torah? And behold, I will hide, really hide (haster astir) my face from them on that day" (Talmud, Chulin 139b)
The name Esther comes from the root of "hester" – hiddenness. The Scroll of Esther is known for its intense hiding of God's Presence, to the extent that God's Name isn't mentioned in it at all.
When reading the story, it is common to think that although on the surface things seemed quite random, Mordechai and Esther knew all along that there was to be a miracle and that God was just behind the scenes, orchestrating events into a beautiful tapestry of order and meaning.
But, upon deeper study, a different impression emerges. Even Esther and Mordechai could not see God's Presence hidden amidst the darkness of events. They were engulfed in a terrible sense of angst and bewilderment throughout the story, experiencing a distance from God which never fully left them.
And every day, Mordechai walked before the court of the women's house (Esther 2:11).
Mordechai was one of four righteous people who were given a hint (sign) of things to come: He said: "Could it be that this righteous woman should be married to an uncircumcised man? It must be that some big catastrophe will befall Israel and they will be saved through her." (Torah Temima, Esther 2:11)
The only hint Mordechai had was the knowledge that if his virtuous, pure niece should have to go through the defiling experience of living in a harem for a year and end up married to a hedonistic, evil Persian king, something as terrible as this must have meaning. This veiled sense of meaning is the only hint he receives. No prophecy, just a hint.
Esther didn't even have the benefit of that hint.
DESPAIR AND DOUBT
When Mordechai beseeches Esther to approach Achashverosh and beg him to rescind the evil decree of Haman, she's not at all convinced that it's a good plan. Esther doesn't feel God's support. She certainly does not feel God's direct providence guiding events. According to the natural order of things, one who approaches the king without an invitation is to be killed. How on earth can she go in unannounced?
And I have not been called to the king these past thirty days. (Esther 4:11)
According to the Zohar (3:109), every time "the king" is mentioned without the name Achashverosh, a deeper meaning can be inferred regarding the King of Kings – a.k.a. God.
Esther hadn't been called to God in thirty days – even though she was a prophetess, she hadn't experienced the closeness of God's Presence in many days. She didn't feel the support of God in this plan, didn't sense its rightness. This is her hesitation.
Mordechai, however, was positive that God wasn't about to abandon His people. Where Esther was engulfed in darkness and doubt, Mordechai was certain that he had an approach which was applicable in all cases:
If you are silent now, salvation and redemption will stand up for the Jewish People from another place, and you and your father's family will be lost... (Esther 4:14)
God will save His children. No matter what. Even if it is undeserved. In the face of despair, all we can do is trust God and He will deliver, as a direct consequence of our trust in Him. Mordechai was teaching Esther a new way of thinking – a mode for a time of darkness. Just as when the Jewish People, having left Egypt, were heading toward the sea and the Egyptians were following close behind, God said to Moses: "Tell them to move! What are you crying out to Me for?" God taught them this lesson for eternity: When faced with a seemingly insurmountable crisis – don't cry or pray – just move – expect Me to deliver, walk into the sea with complete trust in Me – and when I see that kind of faith, I will act in kind and I will save you.
Esther was an astute pupil. She still felt very distant from God:
When Esther went into Achashverosh, she felt an acute loss of the Presence of God. She said, My God, my God, why have you left me? (Talmud, Megillah 15b)
But on an intellectual level, she had been given a directive: act as if you are sure of deliverance. Go and expect a miracle – risk your life for the Jewish People. Trust is the key.
Esther went further than Mordechai in her understanding of the dire situation they were in and how far the Jewish People were from correcting the wrong they had done. She realized that she must formulate a plan to increase trust on the part of the entire Jewish nation. It would not be enough to go in expecting to be saved on her merit alone.
Go and gather the Jewish People and fast for me: Don't eat or drink for three days and nights ... and then I will go to the king, and if I am lost, I am lost. (Esther 4:16)
The Jewish People were fasting and praying to God for three days, but Esther knew that deep down they may still be lacking the necessary, complete trust in God:
What did Esther see, that she invited Haman (to the party)? She said to herself: Lest they say "we have a sister in the palace," and thus be distracted from asking God for mercy. (Talmud, Megillah 15b)
Esther decided to give her Jewish brethren the impression and resulting shock that she was in cohoots with the enemy!
Imagine the devastating disappointment, after three days of fasting and praying for their "sister in the palace" to succeed in revoking the decree, upon hearing that she had invited the evil Haman to a party with the king, at which nothing was accomplished and only a second party was scheduled! Queen Esther was socializing with their arch-enemy!
The outcome from the ensuing panic after this unexpected turn-of-events would be a loss of faith in any other agent or savior, and the realization that only God could bring about their redemption. No natural way out of this mess! In short, the Jewish people would attain a complete trust in God with no distractions.
This was Esther's ingenious plan. At the first party, the time was not right for redemption, the nation was undeserving of a turn-about. They had to reach a state of panic first and then pray effectively! Only that night, while Achashverosh tossed and turned, and Haman gleefully planned Mordechai's demise, did the Jewish People's cries reach a crescendo and penetrate the heavens. The tide finally began to turn.
The next morning, having heard about Mordechai's elevation in status and his ride around town led by Haman, Esther felt confident that they had done all they could, that the spiritual scales were tipped in her favor and now her mission could readily be accomplished.
ESTHER – IN DARKNESS UNTIL THE END
For Esther, there is a palpable sense that God is simply not there. Her personal tragedy does not reach a completely happy end. Her sacrifice is evident and is made knowingly for the sake of the Jewish People.
And if I am lost, I am lost – from this world and in the next. (Rashi)
The Talmud (Megillah 15a) tells us that by going to Achashverosh to beg for her people, Esther was making a coherent choice to have a relationship with him, and thus, according to Jewish law, was casting her lot – physically and spiritually – with a non-Jewish, evil man. No longer was there any hope of returning to a normative Jewish lifestyle, a sanctified marriage (according to Oral Tradition, Esther was married to Mordechai) and to a life of holiness.
For a Jew, this is the hardest thing to tolerate – the feeling of being cast away from God, even as one intellectually knows that He is there and that the only choice is to act accordingly. And yet, Esther willingly risked her life, placing her own trust in the Almighty, as well as bringing about the repentance and subsequent redemption of the entire nation.
And the Jews had light and happiness and joy and honor. (Esther 8:16)
The lesson Esther taught us is one that resonates for eternity:
"All prophetic books and the sacred writings will cease (to be recited) during the Messianic era, except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, just as the Five Books of the Torah and the Oral Torah that will never cease." (Rambam, Megillah 2:18)
What is the lesson of this book that will never lose its relevance, even as all other troubles of the Jewish nation will fade from memory?
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, in his book Pachad Yitzchak, explains with a beautiful metaphor: There are two ways one can recognize his friend in the dark. One way is to use a flashlight. The other way is to get to know the friend by using other senses other than sight to recognize his presence. When the sun comes up, the one who used his flashlight will find it no longer necessary and will cast it aside. But the one who had to train himself in lieu of a flashlight, to sense his friend in other ways, has acquired a deeper knowledge and understanding of his friend and the relationship, even in daylight, will inevitably be enhanced as a result.
So, too, we – the Jewish People – have spent millennia in an effort to recognize God. Leaving Egypt was a flashlight – the Ten Plagues and the miraculous events that followed taught the Jewish People invaluable lessons about their King. And yet, when the sun comes up and the Messiah arrives, the revelation and clarity will be so bright that all holidays and writings commemorating those events will dim in comparison.
Purim, on the other hand, was a story in which no light was switched on. The heroes of the hour and the nation as a whole had to grope and stumble in the interminable darkness and slowly and hesitatingly train themselves in a new approach to relating to God in such a time.
Trust in God as a loving father despite all odds, terrible decrees, undeserving people and a seeming total absence of any spiritual presence, required training of such magnitude that it forever remained in the consciousness of our people, and will stand us in good stead even in the time when the dawn breaks and history reaches its final shining destiny.
"All the holidays will cease except Purim, as it says: And its memory will not cease from their descendants" (Esther 9:28) (Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei 9)